The Children’s Film Foundation was the very height of worthiness throughout the 1960s and 70s – a non-profit unit making films for kids that tended to be decidedly middle class in style and attitude. Their films were adored by the critics and the chattering classes, but rather less loved by the target audience – discovering that you were about to watch a CFF production as a kid was always disappointing.
Masters of Venus was an eight part CFF serial, produced in 1962 for showing on the Saturday morning matinee shows for kids that thrived until the 1980s. As such, it was a successor to the American serials like Flash Gordon that had been the most popular sort of episodic entertainment in the pre-TV era, and follows much the same format – fifteen-minute episodes with cliffhanger endings (admittedly, not very gripping ones). There was one difference though – while older serials were aimed at juvenile audiences, the protagonists were all adults, In Masters of Venus, like all CFF productions, the central characters were kids – in this case, a boy and a girl in their early teens. I never quite got this – as a kid, I had no real interest in watching stories about other kids, and the idea that children (or, indeed, any audience) can only relate to characters that are just like them has always seemed bizarre to me.
Over two hours – originally spread across eight weeks, now able to be enjoyed in a single sitting – Masters of Venus tells the story of the first manned space flight to Venus, which – of course – is carried out by plucky Brits. The top secret rocket ship – the secret location of which is rather ruined by a large sign saying INTERPLANETARY ROCKET BASE – is the brainchild of Dr Ballantyne, who allows his two children Jim (Robin Stewart) and Pat (Amanda Coxell) to visit the base and poke around this very expensive bit of technology. Then again, the two kids are typically polite, very middle class and scientific boffins in their own right.
Security at the base seems to consist of about four wheezing, overweight guards, and so they are no match for two ray gun-toting mysterious saboteurs. Luckily, Jim and Pat are on the base, and together with the two pilots, lock themselves in the rocket ship to prevent the intruders from gaining access. Thanks to a bit of plot fudging, the rocket takes off, and our heroes son find themselves en route to Venus.
Back on Earth, it soon transpires that the saboteurs are in fact six-fingered Venusians (for presumably budgetary reasons, we never actually see these six fingers), and it becomes clear that the Earthlets will not receive a warm welcome. But it’s too late to warn them – the rocket has landed, and the crew are out and about in their unlikely looking space suits. Son, they encounter the suspicious Venusians – who turn out to be former Atlantean Earthmen – and are held captive, as the Venusians plan to use the rocket to deliver a deadly virus to Earth.
As an early bit of episodic British science fiction (it pre-dates Doctor Who by a year), Masters of Venus is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a lot better than you might expect. The juvenile leads are less annoying than they initially seem (Stewart sports a floppy hairstyle that would not be out of place on many a twee indie pop star) and the series manages to avoid having them being unconvincingly heroic for most of the time – their inevitable escape owes as much to Venusian infighting and refuseniks as it does their own ingenuity. There’s a heartening message about racism and tolerance (the Venusians originally fled Earth because they were being persecuted over their additional finger, and are now equally bigoted against the Earth people), and the special effects are rather better than you would expect – the Venus sets and the rocket ship are simple, but effective – Venus, with its poison atmosphere, is a mist-shrouded, volcanic place with a huge crater that leads to the underground city. Costume are less effective – and the robot slaves of the Venusians are rather ineffectual, given that they are promoted as being terrifying figures (indidentally, it’s fascinating to note that Venus was the planet du jour of juvenile sci-fi at this time, also being the location of the third Pathfinders series, Dan Dare‘s Mekon, Queen of Outer Space and the Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth).
Unfortunately, the serial takes a while to get going. Most CFF films clocked in at around an hour running time, and at twice that length, this feels rather padded. It takes four episodes to actually get to Venus – Flash Gordon would have never been so tardy – and the early episodes plod along, when they need to zip. It’s easy to picture cinemas full of kids fidgeting impatiently as Pat and Jim go on and on about science, impatiently waiting for the arrival of the aliens. The fact that the first episode goes out of its way to tell the audience that there will be no Bug Eyed Monsters in the serial must have elicited groans of disappointment, too.
But once it gets going, Masters of Venus is decent enough entertainment. It’s rather talky, but keeps that talk so frenetic and shouty that it often seems that something is going on, even when it isn’t. Each episode has enough excitement, intrigue and incident to keep most juvenile viewers happy, I’d imagine (and yes, I’m aware that in watching this as one single film, I am not experiencing it as it was intended to be seen – I imagine the pacing seems a lot better when chopped into fifteen minute chunks).
As a slice of pre-Who science fiction from the height of the space race, Masters of Venus is good fun, if rather slight. It’s less fun than the TV series Pathfinders in Space from the same era, but for anyone looking to enjoy a long-lost world of children’s entertainment – far removed from the desperately street-cred fixated, cynical rubbish made for kids now – or simply with a love for old-school science fiction serial adventure, then this disc (surprisingly bare-bones for a BFI release, without even a booklet) is well worth picking up.